The Sequence of the Tribes

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Bamidbar

 

The Sequence of the Tribes

Part 1

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Sefer Bemidbar describes the journey of the people of Israel from Mount Sinai towards the Promised Land.  As its preliminary parashiyot make clear, a prerequisite for that journey to be concluded successfully and without mishap is for the sprawling Israelite camp to be arranged, structured and tightly organized, in a spatial as well as in a conceptual sense, around the precious core of the Mishkan.  This ordering, of course, necessitates a census of the people first of all, and it is with this numbering of the tribes that the book opens:

 

God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai at the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year from their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: "count the entire congregation of Israel according to their families and their clans, each male according to name.  You and Aharon shall count them from the age of twenty and above, all those in Israel who go out to wage war…" (Bemidbar 1:1-2). 

 

But while the book opens with a census of the tribes, it quickly becomes apparent that the purpose of the count is not simply to ascertain the number of fighting men on the eve of their entry into the land, but also to allow for the planned and well-thought-out division of the camp into coordinated quadrants of roughly the same size.  It thus transpires after all of the tribes have been independently counted and the number of all of the adult males together has been calculated, that four ensigns are then assigned to each three-tribe unit in turn (Chapter 2).

 

THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CAMP

 

            The Yehuda group, for instance, consisting of the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun, is stationed on the eastern flank of the Mishkan and consists in total of 186,400 members.  It is balanced by the grouping of Efraim to the west that consists also of Menashe and Binyamin, and numbers 108,100.  The Reuven group to the south, allying that tribe with Shimon and Gad, numbers 151,450, while the ensign of Dan to the north that includes Asher and Naftali, consists of 157,600 adult males of military age.  The total number of adult Israelite males, reported in Chapter 2:32, is simply the combination of these four numbers: 186,400 + 108,100 + 151,450 + 157,600 = 603,550.  

 

            This schematic structure of the Israelite camp is completed by the inclusion of the three families of Gershon, Kehat and Merari.  These clans together comprise the tribe of Levi that was otherwise left out of the general census, and their role in the service of the Tabernacle is decisive.  When the Israelite camp is in transit, these families are responsible for the conveyance of the various building and cultic elements of the Mishkan; when the Israelite camp comes to rest, the Levites reassemble those elements once again.  And while the Israelite camp is stationary, these families are arranged as a taut and protective u-shaped inner ring around three sides of the hallowed precincts.  Their spatial arrangement around the Mishkan, detailed in Chapters 3 and 4, is also introduced – like that of their Israelite counterparts – by a census of their numbers.  As for the fourth and eastern quadrant of that inner ring, corresponding to the outer ensign of Yehuda, it is occupied by the families of Moshe and Aharon themselves, the prophet and the priest.  The families of these two, and especially the descendents of Aharon who are the Kohanim, fittingly serve as sentinels guarding the approach axis to the Mishkan, for the holy enclosure is entered from the eastern side.

 

            The effect of the whole, then, consisting textually of the lengthy opening chapters of the book, is to cohesively link the numbering and the organization of the Israelite camp to the nucleus of the Mishkan that spatially lies at its center and ontologically serves as its focal point.  There can be no national success, the narratives imply, no realization of the settlement dream in the fertile new land beckoning just beyond the barren wilderness, unless the centrality of God and His instruction are acknowledged and embraced.

 

CONSIDERING THE ORDER OF THE TRIBES OF ISRAEL

 

            This week, we will consider the ORDER of the tribes of Israel as they are presented in the Parasha and then carefully compare it with other places in the Torah where the tribes are listed.  The census of the people is of course conducted according to tribe; while we cannot say with certainty whether the order of the tribes as listed in the census corresponds to the actual chronology of the count, we must assume that in any case there is significance in the sequence as it is presented in the narrative.

 

            Before the census is properly begun, Moshe at God's behest appoints tribal chieftains to assist him in the task.  These are listed as follows: (1) Elitzur son of Shedeur of the tribe of REUVEN, (2) Shelumiel son of Tzurishadai of the tribe of SHIMON, (3) Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of YEHUDA, (4) Netanel son of Tzu'ar of the tribe of YISSACHAR, (5) Eliav son of Chelon of the tribe of ZEVULUN, (6)Elishama son Amihud of the tribe of EFRAIM, (7) Gamliel son of Pedahtzur of the tribe of MENASHE, (8) Avidan son of Gidoni of the tribe of BINYAMIN, (9) Achiezer son of Amishadai of the tribe of DAN, (10) Pag'iel son of Ochran of the tribe of ASHER, (11) Elyasaf son of De'uel of the tribe of GAD, and (12) Achira son of Einan of the tribe of NAFTALI.  We note immediately that the tribe of Levi is not represented, since a separate census of that tribe's members will be taken after the count of the people of Israel.  We also note that the text introduces the tribes of Efraim and Menashe with the phrase "As for the children of Yosef" (1:10), a formula that has no other parallels in the listing.  

 

            Immediately following this listing of tribal chieftains, the census is commenced according to tribe.  But here we notice an unexpected departure, for the sequence of the tribes does not correspond to the sequence of tribal princes!  The princes are listed as above but the tribes and there respective populations are mentioned according to the following sequence: (1) REUVEN, (2) SHIMON, (3) GAD, (4) YEHUDA, (5) YISSACHAR, (6) ZEVULUN, (7) EFRAIM, (8) MENASHE, (9) BINYAMIN, (10) DAN, (11) ASHER and (12) NAFTALI.  It is the tribe of GAD that is jarringly out of order, for here Gad is placed at the beginning of the list between Shimon and Yehuda whereas above Elyasaf the son of De'uel the chieftain of Gad appeared towards the very end, sandwiched between Asher and Naftali.  We note that once again the census count of the tribes of Efraim and Menashe are introduced with the same formula utilized above: "As for the children of Yosef" (1:32).

 

            Finally, the tribes are listed one last time in our Parasha as the ensigns are designated and the encampment is divided into quadrants.  Here the order is different once again, as outlined earlier concerning the organization of the Israelite camp.  First, the tribes of (1) YEHUDA, (2) YISSACHAR and (3) ZEVULUN are assigned to the eastern flank, followed by (4) REUVEN, (5) SHIMON, and (6) GAD to the south, (7) EFRAIM, (8) MENASHE and (9) BINYAMIN to the west, and (10) DAN, (11) ASHER and (12) NAFTALI to the north.  While the order within the tribal triads of this final list correspond to the population lists, the sequence of the triads has been shifted in favor of Yehuda and its allied tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun, for they now appear first.  We should also note that in this passage, the tribes of Efraim and Menashe are NOT introduced with the familiar "As for the sons of Yosef."

 

INTRODUCING THE TRIBES IN SEFER BEREISHIT

 

            It is instructive to compare our lists with the order of the tribes as they are introduced in Sefer Bereishit, in Parashat Vayetze that describes the convoluted story of their births.  Recall that our patriarch Yaakov had taken Leah and Rachel as his wives, the latter as his intended and the former as a result of his wily future father-in-law Lavan's machinations.  These two sisters, each separately locked in a fateful embrace with Yaakov that engendered between them intense feelings of rivalry and unrequited love, were eventually joined in the stressful union by their respective handmaidens, Zilpa and Bilha.  In all, father Yaakov sired twelve sons and one daughter from these women.  While we shall not at this juncture engage in a careful study of that most painful period, we should be cognizant of the section's portentous tones: forging a nation out of disparate and fractious tribes must necessarily entail some degree of struggle and confrontation.

 

            In any case, the birth order of these individuals – the eponymous fathers of the tribes of Israel – is as follows: (1) REUVEN, (2) SHIMON, (3) LEVI, and (4) YEHUDA, all sons of Leah;  (5) DAN and (6) NAFTALI, sons of Bilha; (7) GAD and (8) ASHER, sons of Zilpa; (9) YISSACHAR and (10) ZEVULUN, also sons of Leah; and (11) YOSEF and (12) BINYAMIN, sons of Rachel.  We should not be surprised by the omission of EFRAIM and MENASHE from this list, since these two sons of Yosef were not yet born until his descent to Egypt.  It was in fact at the time of Yaakov's farewell blessing to Yosef and his children, extended on the eve of the infirm patriarch's death, that they became official members of the tribal club (see Bereishit 48:5).

 

            The order outlined above more or less appears again in the story of the family's fateful descent to Egypt, after Yosef had revealed his identity to his incredulous brothers who had come in search of grain.  The relevant list is preserved in Parashat Vayigash (Bereishit 46:8-27) and states the tribes (and their clans) as follows: (1) REUVEN, (2) SHIMON, (3) LEVI, (4) YEHUDA, (5) YISSACHAR and (6) ZEVULUN, all sons of Leah;  (7) GAD and (8) ASHER, sons of Zilpa; (9) YOSEF (and his sons Efraim and Menashe), and (10) BINYAMIN, sons of Rachel;  and (11) DAN and (12) NAFTALI, sons of Bilha.  While the overall birth order has not been preserved, the internal birth order associated with each matriarch has been kept, with the whole list arranged accordingly: Leah's children, her handmaiden Zilpa's children, Rachel's children, and her handmaiden Bilha's children.  We note, of course, that by his point the individuals of Parashat Vayetze have raised families that have began to grow into the budding tribes of Israel.

 

SEFER SHEMOT AND SEFER BEMIDBAR

 

            A concise list of the tribes is presented once again as the opening to Sefer Shemot and as the backdrop to the story of the enslavement in Egypt.  Here, the order most closely matches that of Parashat Vayigash but with some important variations:

 

These are the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt, along with Yaakov each one arrived with his household: (1) REUVEN, (2) SHIMON, (3) LEVI and (4) YEHUDA.  (5) YISSACHAR, (6) ZEVULUN and (7) BINYAMIN.  (8) DAN and (9) NAFTALI, (10) GAD and (11) ASHER.  All of the descendents of Yaakov numbered seventy souls, including (12) YOSEF who was in Egypt…(Shemot 1:1-7).

 

Note that all of Leah's sons are presented in the order of their birth, followed by Binyamin the son of Rachel.  Binyamin is succeeded by the sons of Bilha, Rachel's handmaiden, and the list is completed with the mention of Zilpa's offspring.  Yosef is mentioned separately, for he did not descend to Egypt with the others but had arrived much earlier.  Nevertheless, his children Efraim and Menashe are not mentioned in the list at all.

 

            Finally, we take note of one other list.  In Parashat Pinchas, towards the very end of Sefer Bemidbar, the people of Israel are counted once again.  Our census in Parashat Bemidbar was ultimately rendered obsolete by the sin of the spies and the resultant Divine decree that the Israelites remain in the wilderness for almost forty years, until the death of that entire generation.  The census of Parashat Pinchas, in contrast, was undertaken on the eve of the entry into the land, as the people of Israel camped expectantly at the plains of Moav, just east of the River Yarden.  As such, the results of that census had special significance insofar as determining the size of the Israelite fighting force as well mapping out the allotments of land according to tribe, clan and family in Canaan.  Although in the census of Parashat Pinchas there is no mention of the tribal princes by name, the order of the tribes is almost identical to that of our Parasha!  Thus, the census of the tribe of (1) REUVEN is followed by that of (2) SHIMON, and then by (3) GAD, (4) YEHUDA, (5) YISSACHAR, (6) ZEVULUN, (7) MENASHE, (8) EFRAIM, (9) BINYAMIN, (10) DAN, (11) ASHER, and (12) NAFTALI (Bemidbar 26:1-51).  The only minor difference between this order and that of our Parasha concerns the reversal of Menashe and Efraim, the "sons of Yosef" (26:28).

 

            Thus far, we have tracked seven separate lists of the tribes of Israel mentioned in the Torah, some of them consisting of a simple and concise grouping of names, and some of them forming part of considerably larger narrative.  These lists are preserved in Sefer Bereishit, Sefer Shemot and especially Sefer Bemidbar and together comprise just about all of the relevant material on the subject.  Let us tabulate the results:

 

Bemidbar

1:5-15

Bemidbar 1:20-43

Bemidbar 2:1-31

Bereishit 29:32 - 30:24

Bereishit 46:8-27

Shemot 1:1-7

Bemidbar 26:5-51

Reuven

Reuven

Yehuda

Reuven

Reuven

Reuven

 Reuven

Shimon

Shimon

Yissachar

Shimon

Shimon

Shimon

Shimon

Yehuda

Gad

Zevulun

Levi

Levi

Levi

Gad

Yissachar

Yehuda

Reuven

Yehuda

Yehuda

Yehuda

Yehuda

Zevulun

Yissachar

Shimon

Dan

Yissachar

Yissachar

Yissachar

Efraim

Zevulun

Gad

Naftali

Zevulun

Zevulun

Zevulun

Menashe

Efraim

Efraim

Gad

Gad

Binyamin

Menashe

Binyamin

Menashe

Menashe

Asher

Asher

Dan

Efraim

Dan

Binyamin

Binyamin

Yissachar

Yosef

Naftali

Binyamin

Asher

Dan

Dan

Zevulun

Binyamin

Gad

Dan

Gad

Asher

Asher

Yosef

Dan

Asher

Asher

Naftali

Naftali

Naftali

Binyamin

Naftali

Yosef

Naftali

 

Next time, God willing, we will continue to explore the matter of the order of the Tribes.  We will first look at a few more tribal lists in the Torah before going on to consider the implications of the matter.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Shabbat Shalom